Operation Bluestar: 33 yrs on, Golden Temple’s fight for justice still on

The Teja Singh Samundari Hall in the Golden Temple complex may have been refurbished, but the scars remain. Quite literally.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has preserved 147 bullet marks on the walls of its HQ, just so they can serve as evidence in a Rs 1,000-crore suit related to a military attack on the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star.

One fallout of Operation Blue Star was the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984.

Sikh leaders say that while money can’t possibly compensate for the damage suffered by the sacred site in June 1984, the suit is their way of keeping memories of the event alive. The case is due for the so-called “framing of issues” (a step in a suit where the contours of the dispute are defined) in April, 32 years after it was filed in 1985.

The attack was aimed at flushing out Sikh separatists from the temple, but Sikhs around the world, including many opposed to the separatist notion of Khalistan, were aggrieved by it. One fallout of Operation Blue Star was the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984.

While the Akal Takht , the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, was severely damaged in the military operation, other structures in the sanctum sanctorum were riddled with bullets. The SGPC renovated the building last year, but kept the bullet marks on its walls intact (with the added protection of custom-made metal cases).

Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the SGPC president at the time, was arrested a few days after Operation Bluestar was called off. Upon his release from the Jodhpur jail in March 1985, Tohra met up with other SGPC executive body members and decided to file the suit.

“The actual motive behind the case was not to seek money, but to bring on record the events that led to the operation and everything that occurred afterwards. It was meant to keep memories of the attack alive,” said Manjit Singh Calcutta, a long-time associate of Tohra. The SGPC claims that the Akal Takht, which was hit by mortar shells during Operation Bluestar, was destroyed beyond repair.

Calcutta, who was the SGPC secretary during the incident and its chief secretary in 1987, recalled how the temporal seat of the Sikhs was severely damaged in the military operation.

“It was razed to the ground twice after Operation Bluestar, and then built again. By seeking compensation, we want to lay bare the atrocities heaped upon us by the government,” he added.

Though the case was initially filed at a district court in Amritsar, it was later transferred to the Delhi high court over jurisdictional issues.

Fee matters

Pursuing the suit required the petitioner to deposit a court fee amounting to R9.73 crore with the Delhi high court. Tohra sought exemption from depositing the money on the grounds that he – as an individual – could not afford it, but failed to get a favourable response from the courts. The SGPC took over the case after his death in 2004. “Tohra’s plea for not depositing the court fee was rejected by the Delhi high court in 2012, and later by the Supreme Court. We finally decided to shell out the money in 2013,” said Avtar Singh Makkar, the then SGPC president.

The decision, however, was not easy. “At one time, when the court rejected the case on the grounds that it could not be run as an indigent one (sans payment of court fees), even the committee seemed to be in two minds about pursuing it. However, after some discussion, it decided to go ahead with the suit,” said an SGPC office-bearer.

APS Ahluwalia, a senior lawyer representing the SGPC, hoped that the case would now be allowed to run its course. “The issues should be framed very soon,” he said.

It was in March 2016, during Makkar’s tenure as the SGPC president, that the body decided to renovate the Teja Singh Samundari Hall under the condition that the bullet marks on its walls be preserved. It also specified that such marks on the Darshani Deori, the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple, and those on the outer facade of the Akal Takht be kept intact.

The compensation list

The library and toshakhana (treasury) of the Golden Temple were among the many structures that suffered severe damage in the military operation.

According to a list prepared by the SGPC, a chandoa (a diamond-encrusted piece of cloth hung over the Guru Granth Sahib) gifted by the Nizam of Hyderabad to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early nineteenth century was charred in the violence. The cost of the artefact was pegged at Rs 200 crore.

Among the other damaged articles were at least 2,500 handwritten birs (holy books) of the Guru Granth Sahib from the times of Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Gobind Singh; a sehra (ornament worn on the forehead) belonging to Sikh ruler Naunihal Singh from the early 1800s; a gold jhallar (wall decoration) and a bunch of gold keys donated to the Golden Temple by Maharaja Ranjit Singh; 25 pencil sketches harking back to the age of the Sikh gurus; a handwritten gurbani (hymn book) of great religious and historic importance; an 11th Century Gita; and 50 miniature paintings from the same era.

The SGPC claims that the Akal Takht, which was hit by mortar shells during Operation Bluestar, was destroyed beyond repair. The list produced by the committee also cites the damage caused to other buildings – such as the Darshani Deori and the Teja Singh Samundari Hall – due to military action. Submissions to the court include news articles on Operation Bluestar and photographs of damaged buildings as well as bullet marks on sacred structures.

Apology not given

Many in the SGPC believe the matter could have been sorted out a long time ago, if only the government had mustered up the humility to apologise for its “mistake”.

During the course of the trial, the SGPC offered to withdraw its suit if the government agreed to apologise and submit a token compensation of Re 1. The defence lawyers, however, refused.

“We told the court that monetary compensation doesn’t matter much to Sikhs. The government’s acceptance of a wrong it committed would have gone a long way in resolving the issue and acting as a balm for the grieving community,” said Calcutta, desperately trying to hold back his tears.

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